Sec. III. Authority of Church Officers
The inspired record of this Council of Jerusalem plainly sanctions the Presbyterian principle of the right of the office-bearers of the church, as distinguished from the ordinary members, to decide judicially any disputes that may arise about the affairs of the church, —to be the ordinary interpreters and administrators of Christ’s laws for the government of His house. It is quite plain, from the inspired narrative, that the apostles and elders, or presbyters— i.e., the office-bearers of the church— alone composed the Council; that they exclusively were its constituent members, and that they alone formally and judicially decided upon the point brought before them. It is true that the brethren— i.e., the Christian people— generally were present, that they were consulted, and that they concurred in the decision; and the place which they occupied in the matter will be afterwards adverted to. But it is certain that the apostles and elders alone composed the Council, and alone formally pronounced the decision. We have the regular formal minute of sederunt, as it might be called, in the sixth verse, where we are told that “the apostles and elders came together for to consider of this matter;” and at the fourth verse of the sixteenth chapter, the decrees of the Council are expressly described as “the decrees that were ordained of the apostles and elders which were at Jerusalem;” and these decrees, it is manifest, were authoritative or binding upon the churches. There is, indeed, a clear distinction kept up in the New Testament between the office-bearers and the ordinary members of the church: the one class being described as rulers and governors, and of course being invested with a certain kind and degree of authority; and the other being bound to render a certain measure and degree of submission and obedience.
There are some obvious and important limitations of the authority to be exercised by the one party, and of the obedience to be rendered by the other.
First, The authority of the office-bearers, while restricted exclusively to the affairs of the church, —to the administration of the ordinary necessary business of Christ’s house, —is even there not lordly, or legislative, or discretionary, but purely ministerial, to be exercised in Christ’s name, i.e., in entire subjection to His authority and to His word. Christ is the church’s only King and Head; and this implies that its affairs must be regulated by His mind and will revealed in His word. The constitution and laws of His kingdom have been fixed by Him, and cannot by any human or uninspired authority be altered, abrogated, or extended. The office-bearers of the church are not lords over God’s heritage: they have no dominion over men’s faith; they have no jurisdiction over the conscience; they are the mere interpreters of Christ’s word, the mere administrators of the laws which He has enacted.
Secondly, Even within their proper sphere of simply interpreting and administering Christ’s laws— i.e., applying them to the actual regulation of the affairs of the church as occasion may require— the office-bearers of the church are not, as Papists allege, infallible, so as to be entitled to exact implicit and unquestioning obedience. No such privilege has been promised to, or conferred upon, them; and to claim it, is to put themselves in Christ’s stead, and to usurp dominion over the conscience.
Thirdly, The office-bearers of the church have no exclusive right to interpret Christ’s laws. Upon scriptural and Protestant principles, every man has the right of private judgment, —i.e., he is entitled to interpret the word of God for himself upon his own responsibility, for the regulation of his own opinions and conduct, for the execution of his own functions and the discharge of his own duties, whatever these may be; and Christ has conferred upon no class of men any power that interferes with the exercise of this right. This right of private judgment belongs to all men in their different capacities, public and private, and ought to be exercised by them with a view to the discharge of their own duties and functions, whatever these may be. Civil rulers are, on this ground, entitled and bound to interpret the word of God for themselves, with a view to the right discharge of any duties, competent to them in their own sphere and province, with respect to which the word of God affords any data for decision; and every private individual enjoys the same right or privilege. The same principle, in this general mode of stating it, applies equally to ecclesiastical office-bearers; but in their case it must be viewed in connection with this additional Scripture truth, that they are Christ’s ordinance for the ordinary government of His visible church, —that it is their function and duty, while it is not the function and duty of any other party, to administer His laws for the management of the ordinary necessary business of His church, — for deciding and regulating all those matters which require to be regulated and decided wherever a church of Christ exists and is in full operation. This being their function and duty, they are of course entitled and bound to interpret the word of God for themselves, in the exercise of their own judgment, and upon their own responsibility, for the execution and discharge of it. Christ has not vested the government of His church— i.e., the management of its ordinary necessary business— either in civil rulers or in the body of ordinary members; and therefore they are not entitled to interpret the word of God for the purpose of executing this function. He has vested the ordinary administration of the affairs of His church in ecclesiastical office-bearers; and to them, therefore, and to them alone, belongs the right of interpreting and applying His laws for the attainment of this object, the accomplishment of this end. In so far as the decisions of ecclesiastical office-bearers affect other men collectively or individually, these men are fully entitled to judge for themselves whether or not the decisions pronounced are in accordance with the mind and mil of Christ; and by the judgment which they form upon this point to regulate their own conduct, in so far as they have any function to execute, or any duty to discharge. But since the judicial determination of the office-bearers of the church is the only ordinary provision which Christ has made for administering the affairs of His church, no party is entitled to interfere authoritatively with them in the execution of this function; and all parties, while exercising their own right of private judgment, ought to regard the decisions of the ordinary and only competent authorities in the matter with a certain measure of respect and deference— at least to this extent, that if they do resolve to condemn and disobey the decisions, they ought to be very sure that these decisions are opposed to the mind and will of Christ, and that, therefore, they may confidently appeal from the decision of the office-bearers to the tribunal of the Head of the church Himself.
With the limitations, and in the sense, now explained, it is a scriptural principle which has always been held by Presbyterians, in opposition to Independents or Congregationalists, that the government of the church— the ordinary administration of Christ’s laws, the judicial determination of any questions that may arise, and that may require to be decided in the ordinary management of the business of His house— is vested, not in the body of the people, or the ordinary members, but in the office-bearers of His church; that they constitute the only regular and ordinary tribunal for the decision and regulation of these matters; that therefore their decisions should be treated with respect and obedience, unless they be contrary to the mind and will of God; and that men who refuse to obey them are bound to be well satisfied, upon good scriptural grounds, that they can confidently appeal to Christ against the sentence pronounced in His name upon earth.
It is the doctrine of our church, as set forth in the Confession of Faith, that “the decrees and determination” of Synods and Councils, “if consonant to the word of God, are to be received with reverence and submission, not only for their agreement with the word, but also for the power whereby they are made, as being an ordinance of God appointed thereto in His word.” Without giving a full exposition of this general principle, I merely observe that it may be regarded as comprehending the three following positions: —
First, That all the decrees and determinations of Councils or Church Courts should be regulated by the word of God.
Secondly, That they are to be received with reverence and submission only when they are consonant with the word of God; and that of this, of course, every one is entitled and bound to judge for himself on his own responsibility.
Thirdly, That when they are consonant with the word, regard should be had, in the feelings with which they are contemplated, and in the way in which they are treated, not only to the fact of their accordance with the word, but also to the fact that they are righteous. and scriptural decisions of a legitimate authority, rightfully exercised; that they are instances of the right working of a provision which God has made, of an ordinance which He has appointed for the administration of the affairs of His church. The ordinary provision which God has made for settling public controversies and regulating the ordinary necessary business of His church, is by the public deliberations and decisions (according to His word) of the ordinary office-bearers; and when, through His blessing, this provision operates rightly, and brings out results which are consonant with the word, men are called upon to recognise the wisdom and goodness of God in appointing such an ordinance, and in guiding it, upon this particular occasion, to a right and scriptural result, and to contemplate and receive the result with the reverence and submission which the realization of the truth that this is an ordinance of God appointed thereto in his word is evidently fitted to call forth.- William Cunningham Historical Theology vol.1, pp. 50-54Home Page